Just arrived in Singapore? This article may save your (social) life.

On big occasions such as Chinese New Year or weddings, it is a custom to give a small red envelop (Ang Pao, in Hokkien) filled with some money to family members, colleagues or the newly wed couple.

If a similar practice is well spread for weddings in the Western world under a different form (the “wedding list”), the Lunar New Year envelops are definitely an Asian specificity.

How much should I give and to whom?

It depends on the occasion, your social and professional status (a manager is expected to give to his direct reports. Parents will give an envelop to their children and nephews. Note that if you are not married, you are not expected to give an envelop. For weddings, try to compare your gift to the share of your cost for the event to try to cover your cost at the table.

As much as possible, the amount given should be an even amount (ideally with an 8 as this digit symbolizes “good luck” so 8, 18, 88 are good amounts). Avoid numbers including a 4 (as 4 is associated with death (the Chinese pronunciation for both “4” and “death” is close).

What should I do with it?

As always, it’s recommended not to open your envelop (or any gift) in front of the person who gave it to you. Thank the person who gave you the envelop and put it in your pocket. You will open it later.

Origins of the tradition

By the way, why is it red?

Red symbolizes good luck and is supposed to keep evil spirits away.

Where does the tradition come from?

There is no undisputed explanation. The tradition comes from China. Maybe from the the Qin Dynasty when old folks would tread coins with a red string to keep the evils spirits away. In Chinese, the money included in the envelop is called “ya-tsui-chian”??? which means that suppresses evil spirits, it evolves into ??? – money that keep children young.

Note that this practice is also common in other countries in South East Asia with some variations. For instance, in Muslim communities in Malaysia, Indonesia, people use green envelops for Hari Raya.

Red envelops in the office

If you work in a company that follows the local customs (most local companies do, a large fraction of the multinationals also follow the country practices), you will probably be given empty envelops. So if you see some empty red envelops on your desk one morning, you know what to do.

gong xi fa cai!

PS: and don’t call the Zoo if you see a Lion in your office eating oranges and dancing around your desk. It’s another Chinese tradition. More on that in another post.